After months of anticipation, I finally made it over to the corner of 24th and Market in Ballard last week with the sole purpose of consuming tapas.  If I lived in the neighborhood, Ocho would easily be my new favorite hangout.  I was completely spellbound by the cozy candlelit space, the incredible spirits and the stellar bites of Spanish bar food.  This has everything to do with the absurdly charming Zach Harjo (formerly the bartender at La Carta de Oaxaca around the corner) and his girlfriend Gelsey Hanson, who are the owners of Ocho and quite possibly the nicest people in Seattle.

Additionally, Mr. Harjo has some pretty vaunted mixology chops.  Ocho bills itself as “Home of the 10 Dollar Margarita”, so how could I pass that up?  Made with El Tesoro Añejo tequila (aged 2 to 3 years in oak barrels) and freshly squeezed lime juice, it certainly was a tasty margarita – no bitterness, mellow with big floral agave notes (but was it worth $10?  I’ll let the tequila connoisseurs duke that one out).  The Sangria Roja is even better, and tastes nothing like what passes for sangria in most of the places I’ve seen in the States.  Harjo wanted to recreate the sangria he discovered while traveling through Spain, so this meant a cocktail with lots of brandy, just a little bit of red wine for flavor and a dry sherry called amontillado muddled with strained crushed fruit and then shaken.  Bright and strong with a hint of almonds, I think I’ve found my new summer drink.  I also enjoyed the Hemingway inspired Death in the Afternoon, a terrific cap to the evening which featured Harjo’s homemade “absinthe” (la hora verde) mixed with cava rose and served in a champagne flute.  Pungent and herbal and unequivocally lovely.

(Thanks, Spike!)

(Thanks, Spike!)

And what of the tapas?  The chalkboard on the wall reveals an endless list of tiny bites ranging from $1.50 for a white anchovy skewer with roasted red pepper, fried artichokes and a dollop of aioli (yum, gulp, gone) to $6.00 for clams with smoked ham in a tomato paprika broth (which I found to be tragically overcooked and chewy).  My favorite bite(s) of the evening were the Setas de Jerez – sherried mushrooms piled on top of olive oil toast, with a mound of gorgeous arugula shredded on top.  Buttery and sweet, with a slow burning spiciness.  I devoured it and ordered two more.  The most successful dish I sampled was an ensalada de pulpo – chunks of warm octopus with beans, pickled onion, preserved lemon and slow cooked garlic.  The octopus was grilled up beautifully, not chewy in the least, with a tasty charred flavor and an oily texture.  The entire plate was fragrant and heartwarming and paired deliciously with the Death in the Afternoon.

We had gathered a large crew for the trip to Ocho, so there were many tapas plates passed around throughout the evening.  A charcuterie plate with Lomo dry-cured pork loin, Mahon cheese and sliced honey crisp apple was a crowd pleaser.  A dish of spicy fried potatoes was determined to be not terribly spicy (or memorable).  A bite of tortilla española (a densely layered frittata with egg, potato and onion served on a toothpick) was considered very strange.  By the time we were finished, I had eaten to contentment, and was sad to pass on the paella (earlier in the evening, I had been granted a sample from Zach’s impromptu “lunch” that the kitchen had whipped up – “one of the perks, I guess”.)  I did somehow manage a final bite of the already famous pan con chocolate – a piece of toast with spicy chocolate ganache, chopped almonds, truffle oil and flor de sal.  It was crispy and creamy and tasted like Europe.

I should probably mention that Ocho is a very tiny, very intimate, very crowded space.  The bar seats nine, and there are a handful of tables and that’s it.  By the time we left, the place was packed.  Get there early or prepare to wait.  My favorite part of the evening was the final bill, which read “FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD FOOD LIQUOR LIQUOR LIQUOR LIQUOR…” Sounds about right to me.

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